Education, elected officials have mixed views on budget plan

February 4, 2014
Gov. Tom Corbett delivers his budget address for the 2014-15 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Although they’re still waiting to hear the specifics, local school administrators and politicians greeted Gov. Tom Corbett’s latest budget proposal with mixed reviews.

The $29.4 billion plan includes a proposal for pension savings and new money for education, two topics that are matters of great concern.

Bentworth School District Superintendent Charles Baker spent part of his Tuesday listening to the governor’s speech and trying to decipher what these new proposals would mean for his district.

Although he was unable to the provide the Observer-Reporter with figures and costs for Bentworth’s pension spending, Baker said the state needs to “look at some type of change.”

“School districts won’t be able to support the current funding,” he said. “It’s just not effective.”

Baker said he formerly was part of a district that used a 401(k)-style plan like the one Corbett proposed.

“If that’s the type of program he is proposing, I see that as a tough sell,” Baker said.

Rick Mancini, business manager for Washington School District, said pension problems date to the early 2000s.

“Both parties have to assume responsibility for what happened,” he said. “There’s a huge unfunded debt out there, and there’s no magic bullet to fix it.”

Mancini said he looks forward to seeing the specifics for the pension reform proposal.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “In the 2012-2013 school year, our pension liability was $1.175 million. This year it was $1.7 million, and next year it is estimated to be $2.2 million. Half of that increase is funded by the state. I think it has to be a combination of employee benefit reduction and employee increase of contributions.”

State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, said the budget simply reflects Corbett’s wishes and thoughts.

“It is by no means the final product,” Solobay said. “We will be reviewing it over the next three weeks. But there are still questions when it comes to pension reform.”

Solobay said the proposed changes to the pension program include a two-tiered approach. He said it would not affect those already collecting pensions.

Both Solobay and state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, said it’s too early to tell if the proposal will gain the necessary support in the Legislature.

Otherwise, the general consensus was positive toward the governor’s plan to add money for education. But still, Smith says it’s “too little, too late.”

“Schools had to make difficult decisions,” he said. “It created a dynamic where they cut teachers and programs. My hopes are that we can craft a thoughtful and intelligent budget in the coming months.”

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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